For those whose memory of mid-21st century pop culture is vague, the premise behind Punk’d, an MTV show that originally ran from 2003 to 2007, is simple: producers stage an elaborate prank on an unassuming celebrity; after the victim displays a sufficient level of embarrassment or shock for broadcast, a camouflaged swarm of producers reveal themselves, followed by an animated Ashton Kutcher shouting the show’s trademark, “You’ve been Punk’d.”
One time Justin Timberlake was tricked into believing government agents were surveilling his home for unpaid taxes. Another notorious episode involved Zach Braff’s Porsche being vandalized.
All glib tropes, most undoubtedly staged. But there is an undeniable joy in watching those famous among us fall prey to humiliation for the sole benefit of the viewer. The beauty of an impractical joke lies in that it is both amusing and temporary.
Though the show has not aired in nearly ten years, America is living in what is perhaps the most expensive, elaborate, and heinous episode of Punk’d ever produced. But the script has been flipped: we are the unsuspecting victims, and a single celebrity the bemused beneficiary.
As you have likely surmised, yes, that would be Donald Trump. But with the election less than three months away, gone are the days when some half-believed Trump was going unearth his candidacy as an ingenious ruse intended to reveal the vapidness of our media and political culture. “You’ve been punk’d,” many hoped he would say, mimicking Kutcher.
This prank has no end. There will be no laughs. But it is a prank; Trump’s success is based on little more than the standard ingredients of any April Fool’s joke: trickery, mockery, and deception. With a media all too willing to cover horse race politics and process over substance (or lack thereof), the most obvious fact seems to be routinely obscured: Trump, without qualification, is a con artist; that which suggests otherwise only elevates a man whose track record warrants anything but.
The more attention he receives, the more seriously he is taken; the more seriously he is taken, the more his poll numbers go up. But the more his poll numbers go up, the more we forget why this man shouldn’t be taken seriously ― in any context ― and never should have been in the first place. While polls are predicting a Clinton victory on the order of several points, that in and of itself would represent a win for Trump; a candidate who has said what he has said, and has done what he has done, should not be facing a mere narrow defeat, or in the case of one recent LA Times/USC poll, a tie. The Huffington Post had it right to initially cover Trump in its entertainment section, and would still be perfectly right if it decided to reinstitute that directive today.
Let’s first review the premise of Trump’s ultimate bait and switch: when one talks to his supporters ― and yes, his political followers are no longer limited to the racist disciples of David Duke or the remaining tracts of the Italian mob ― three points are usually cited: He will bring back jobs from Mexico and China, he has unrivaled business savvy, and perhaps above all else, he constitutes the epitome of the “anti-politician,” a man utterly unencumbered by the conventions or traditions that the profession usually demands.
In an interview with The Atlantic, one Trump voter attributed his support for Trump’s stance on trade and nationalistic rhetoric on outsourcing: “The first reason I’d give for trusting Trump is that he had this same rhetoric toward China and Japan all the way back in the late 1980s. For example, he made an appearance on Oprah Winfrey back on April 25, 1988, where he discussed a full page ad criticizing U.S foreign policy. He discussed the issues with Japanese trade at that time. At the very least, the hallmark of his campaign, trade and foreign policy issues, is something that he has remained consistent on.”
This supporter, as with others, cannot be blamed for being enticed by such anti-trade rhetoric. In the past forty years, the blue-collar manufacturing that once sustained America’s middle class has deserted en masse. McDonalds and Walmarts now occupy the weed-laden lots where factories and plants once stood.
The problem, however, lies in that Trump is not only just inconsistent in his views of outsourcing, he is an active participant in it.
Watch: Trump’s Trade Hypocrisy Hilariously Exposed
In an episode of the former David Letterman show, a relic from now quaint days when Trump was not the de facto leader of America’s oldest party, Trump was attempting to plug a new release of his clothing brand. “They’re the best... they’re doing amazing... just the best in the world... remember, buy them at Macy’s.”
Letterman and his crew, though, would not let Trump’s self-aggrandizing verbal contortions go unchallenged. “Where are they made?” Letterman asked deadpan, shifting about the tie set on his round table for effect.
“They were made…. uuugh…. I don’t know where they were made,” he stammered.
“China.” The producer, nodding his head, agreed.
The audience responded with a cathartic laugh, lasting for an uninterrupted minute. It was not for the New York City crowd’s liberalism, but the universal pleasure one takes in witnessing one’s duplicitous disguise torn loose, exposing a shriveled mass of pathetic lies.
He sat speechless, his skin assuming a hue brighter and more orange than is typical. It would’ve been a moment of vindication, if it weren’t for the millions of working class Americans, who lulled by Trump’s used-car salesmen techniques, overlooked this disqualifying detail.
Despite his hallmark promise that he will “bring back jobs to America,” an invocation that has an especially potent appeal to those mangled Rust Belt economies, Trump refused to do so himself. Almost a year into his campaign still, if one wishes to purchase one of his collection’s 25-dollar ties billed as the “pinnacle of style,” its white tag will read “Made in Mexico,” or perhaps Bangladesh.
Another Atlantic interviewee, adamant in his support for Trump, said that “if anyone would negotiate a real deal that would benefit our country for a change, it would be Trump!”
Yet this is doubtful. He was faced with a choice: enriched profit margins or American job creation. He chose the former, which makes it all but impossible to believe he would ever seriously undertake the latter.
Trump’s false-advertising, his “saying one thing but doing another,” undermines his most forceful contention: that he is not a politician. In fact, the ease by which he has transitioned from greedy billionaire to self-styled leader of the pitchforks means he is also a very good one.
To those voters who view him as an honest straight talker, reality tells a different story. He’s just an establishment billionaire, belonging to the same political-wealth complex whose other scions include “Lying Ted”, “Low Energy Bush,” and “Little Marco.”
His tax plan, one of the few proposals he has offered in any detail, provide further proof that his true allegiances lie not in former factory workers or coal miners of Appalachia ― whose support he is apt to boast ― but the likes of those who reside at his gilded tower. The proposal plans to cut taxes for the wealthiest bracket by fifteen percent, while the middle class can expect a barely perceptible deduction, totaling no more than several hundred dollars; it would seem that his definition of “Making America Great” and that of the “Silent Majority” he claims to represent is irreconcilable.
In some ways his ruse is genius: he profits billions of dollars from the exploitation of working-class America ― by means of outsourcing jobs or paying little in taxes ― and then uses those billions of dollars as a selling point in a campaign promising to help those same struggling working class Americans whose suffering he contributed to in the first place! The producers of Punk’d would surely be impressed, though the likes of Machiavelli and Mussolini measurably more so.
Yet we can never lose sight as to how Trump most assuredly concludes his day. He returns to his not-so-humble 5th avenue abode, and looks at himself in the mirror, chuckling. “How could they be this gullible?”
America, please. Don’t be the punchline in Donald Trump’s cruel joke.